Walk away: fighters that don't quit

Garry White
30/05/2018 9:55pm

Garry White ponders some of the boxers who failed to walk away at the right time, from Ad Wolgast to Shannon Briggs...

Ad Wolgast never gave up on it. He saw the whole game through to the bitter, lonely end. As a ghostlike man in his 60s, running the hidden corridors of the Stockton State Psychiatric hospital.

A place where the doors had been closed on him some 30 years earlier.

Still in permanent training for a comeback, his mind perpetually calibrated back to that distant time when he was the lightweight champion of the world.

In the blinking dawn of the new century, the man known as 'The Michigan Wildcat' ripped the title from the great Battling Nelson, after 40-rounds of bloody mayhem. A fight for the ages, forever enshrined in boxing folklore and eulogised among the sport's myriad tales of antiquity.

The rounds of punishment that Wolgast consumed in his 80-fight career had a devastating impact on his mental faculties. To such a degree that his short-term memory became entirely shredded, and his ability to process and order current and past events was permanently compromised.

Not knowing when to quit, his mind eventually removed the mechanism for him to do so and trapped him in his youth forever. Carrying a delusion that would not dim or fade despite the obvious truths of his aging limbs, lined face and the eventual loss of his sight.

Boxing is full of hard-luck stories and sad declines, but there are few more heart-breaking than Wolgast’s tragic and protracted fall.

But, in its own way, it is a tale which reminds us of the age-old question: namely, when should a fighter quit?

It remains an eternal conundrum why some boxers stay fighting too long, or why some quit and then try and return to the scene of their past triumphs, only to be greeted, more often than not, with disaster or mediocrity.

What possessed a fighter of the calibre of James Toney to be still out there and active, beyond his 48th birthday? During the last dregs of his career, the man known as 'Lights Out' lost to some journeymen that would have been worth less than three minutes of his time back in his 90s heyday. Even worse was the fact he was wheeled out amidst half-empty venues to lend credence to the plastic baubles of outlying sanctioning bodies. After defeating 24-20-2 Mike Sheppard in May 2017, Toney was able to call himself the WBF heavyweight champion of the world - perhaps the final most depressing insult of all. His very own crown of thorns.

That 2017 'world' title victory is hopefully the last we will see of the former three-weight world titlist in the ring. Following a near 30-year pro career, consisting of 90 fights and nearly 700 rounds, it feels a cruel, if at least superficially successful, finale.

For Toney it wasn’t the missed lure of the cheering crowd that called him back time and again, but instead a straightforward requirement for dollars. His desperation was so great that he was prepared to fight for paltry purses at unprepossessing venues in a forlorn attempt to make ends meet.

The man that was once pure prime-time gold, whose face flickered from the neon lights of Las Vegas bill-boards, now ravaged, slurred and incoherent. A pugilistic Mr. Bojangles, shuffling the old dance steps, yet connected to them only by a declining form of muscle-memory. His famously granite jaw getting liberally smashed by mugs for the kind of money that he once could have dumped in 15 minutes of disinterested action at Caesars Palace or the MGM Grand.

The path from rags to riches and back again is a familiar theme within the boxing lexicon. One older than Ad Wolgast and inclusive of great champions from Joe Louis through to Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and regrettably beyond.

The 'Brown Bomber' retired in glory with his championship belt having been defended imperiously against all-comers. He got out on his own terms, but was forced back into the ring under the watchful glare of the US tax authorities. Ultimately, he bid his final farewell to the sport flat on his back and tangled among the ropes, after a battering at the hands of Rocky Marciano. Long years of bitter financial instability, disability and finally restorative employment in a Vegas casino followed.

Then there was 'Smokin' Joe Frazier, reduced to sleeping above his crumbling Philadelphia gym, weighed down by the years and his inability to capture the foreground from Muhammad Ali. Or the once impenetrable force of 'Iron' Mike Tyson: tired, desperate, ragged and ultimately humiliated by the benign fists of comparative pygmies like Danny Williams and Kevin McBride. An older, plastic construct of the individual formerly known as the “Baddest man on the planet.” Outwardly the same, but the centre hollowed out, with the fighting heart diminished and the warrior pride despairingly absent. The need for cash driving him to slink back under the ring lights, to bleed away his legacy.

Not all boxers touched these Olympian heights, of course. For every superstar there are a dozen Shannon Briggs or Frans Bothas. The sport's nearly men that captured a glimpse of the big time, yet hang on for recurring and ever limited paydays; long past a time when it is dignified to do so. The honour and dignity of the warrior are prized virtues within the true, unfiltered action of the squared ring. Yet, they hold little credence or value amid the straight, narrow lines of the cold financial world. A place dictated purely by numbers and not one's innate ability to absorb and relate punishment.

Botha was reduced from being a former championship contender and IBF titlist into a fortysomething patsy for Rugby professional Sonny Bill Williams. A fleshy, obliging canvas for the New Zealander to display his splodgy elementary school artwork on.

Then there is Briggs, looking increasingly older than his 46 years, as he still chases the last faint glimmers of the spotlight and one final feel-good payday. The man once anointed as the next big thing, a dream long since passed outside of memory and replaced with the more fundamental need to get paid.

For others, it isn’t about money, but the impossibility of saying goodbye. The pain of leaving the centre ground, and the adrenaline fuelled rush of being cheered on by thousands. A night sat in front of the television or disconnected at ringside, proving a poor replacement. A despairing shift from the inside to the periphery and a newfound confrontation with the dull vagaries of everyday life.

It's a status that Ray Liotta, in his role as Henry Hill, describes perfectly in the seminal gangster movie 'Goodfellas.' Safely ensconced in the witness protection programme but withdrawn from his old glamorous life, he wearily voices to camera: “Great. I get to live the rest of my life like an average schnook.”

Memories are only worth so much. It is the immediate, vital need for action that are intrinsic to the fighter’s make-up. A subject that Frank Bruno has mused on throughout his own post-retirement struggles with his mental health.

David Price is only 34 and still has a sliver of time on his side. Yet, there are many that feel there is something intrinsically missing in his framework. An elusive piece of an otherwise impressive jigsaw that cannot be found or replaced despite his enduring and honourable efforts to do so. The apparent inability to absorb punishment to his chin would appear to be an insurmountable chink in his otherwise abundant armour.

The Liverpool heavyweight is a popular and much loved fighter and there have been loud calls for him to retire following his recent knockout defeat to Alexander Povetkin. However, he is determined to carry on, despite the continued stark demonstration of his limitations at the very highest level. This can be filed under “destiny”, “unfinished business” or the chronic, burning need to fulfil his abundant talent. A belief that is enough to keep him advancing into a likely no-man's land despite the enemies' profusion of artillery and the increasingly forlorn nature of his mission.

Recently Dillian Whyte wasted no time in calling out David Haye following his spectacular defeat to Tony Bellew. The timing may well feel cynical, and Haye probably has one semi-decent payday left in him.

But he should do what so many in the history of boxing haven’t done and walk away.

As Neil Diamond once sang “Money talks, but it can’t sing and dance and it don’t walk.”